Friday, April 24, 2009

Forget the UMC Amendments, There Is a Bigger Issue

I've struggled for a few weeks through Lent, tried to be about my local ministry and denominational service in the conference, and NOT blog in a negative way! Oh, I've got some drafts saved, and there have been a number of blogs I wrote and then deleted. Instead, I've tried to point more toward ministry practice or inspiration when I have had time to blog.

But there is something that is still bugging me and I can't shake it. I'm going to take this as something from God plaguing me here in Easter season, as my prayers are for resurrection and a present redemption for my life, my family, my church, my denomination, and my world. Matter of fact, I'm feeling a calling to this, as I'm a 47 year old who might be a "bridge" between where we've been and where we need to go. Generationally, institutionally, and in regards to career perhaps there are others like me who have experienced the one approach yet see something new developing.

After admiring the efforts of other bloggers in writing about the pros and cons of the upcoming conference votes on UMC amendments I attempted to follow suit. I waded through all of that, thought through aspects of it, and found myself of a split mind, yet still thinking there is something bigger going on.

I share this as one who loves the UMC, appreciates the Wesleyan doctrine and approach, and as one who has benefited tremendously as I wasn't born into this denomination but have been drawn to it and found a home in it. Yet, I don't think we've made it on to perfection just yet with the UMC.

Bear with me as I try to be concise yet express some varied issues that are nagging me.

Some Historic Institutions are Dying and Others are Transforming

Call this the emergence of postmodern institutions, or organizational restructuring, or streamlining, but it's a significant trend. Think GM, think of the 2nd largest mall company going into bankruptcy, think of schools struggling to reform, and certainly think of denominations. It's a new economy emerging, but it's also something more.

Mark Chaves certainly captures some of the issue with his blog on declining confidence . We live in a new, different, and challenging day and old institutional ways are not as efficient today as we need them to be.

Possibility of a New Denomination for a New Millenia?

Just as GM has been pushed to a new structure which is much more radical, much more aggressive, and much more imposed than anything they would have imagined on their own. No one within the "family" who has come up through the beloved institution would place on the table in late 2008 what they now see as a path in April 2009. The numbers, the economy, and the future weren't that radically different in the few months in between.

In our system, it seems to me, something so radical might only occur if God imposed a reformation upon us. And I don't tend to think God works that way! My fear then would be our huge, lumbering ship would "stay the course" and slowly dwindle. Of course, we'd positively redefine that, continue to be the Church, continue to express our doctrine and calling, yet we'd be slowly dying. You've seen that local congregation live out it's life once the "die is cast." :) We're beginning to see this in some conferences, and the thing will spread. Now, I'm not talking about the international, or southern hemisphere UMC as much as I am the United States version.

But what if we found a new energy, a new mission, and a new calling as we find new life in these days of a Risen Savior. In my campus ministry I find MANY college students who are not from church backgrounds, or who come from other religious stances, who are very open to Methodist thinking and Methodist ways. We are distinctive and we have some very real opportunities in this generation even with a postmodern and secular majority. I don't think we've got to yield any ground to anybody! I don't believe that it will make us spiritually superior to fight to the death in legislative sessions, or amend ourselves into more exotic configurations, or become a minority by attrition and institutionalization.

Not Anti-Institution, But A Radical Call for Reform

I no longer think we can take small steps in this "redenominational" effort. I am not anti-institutional as I see both doctrinal and practical value in our coordination for mission. And having served at various levels I know we have some of the best people doing the best they can. The thing is we haven't gotten it right just yet, & I strongly suspect it's a systemic issue. The whole process of us trying to be church and Church is now encumbered and no longer free for mission. And to place this within the context of postmodern thought, the individual finds too many barriers due to the institution.

I can't vote for more amendments that create more institution. We're already overly institutionalized. Instead, if we have opportunity to strip the institution down to the primary elements I'd be ecstatic.

Focus on local ministry such as congregation, chaplaincy, and campus ministry. In United Methodism substantially streamline so that the majority of input of resources impacts the local ministry level rather than draining the local work. The work of the denomination is then to equip, encourage, and radically support effectiveness in ministry at the local level.

Redo the Book of Discipline so it doesn't look and feel like the laws added to laws. We keep doing addition but never do any subtraction! I'm fairly certain that Wesley WAS NOT trying to recreate the Church of England, and it appears that we have successfully acheived this. We are too top heavy with structure and the BOD illustrates this.

Now here's the radical call for a dream denomination. Purge & eliminate the agencies, refocus the seminaries and colleges, strip and redefine apportionments, and after the demolition reconstruct a system that is streamlined and has strong connection between the elements at every level. Many congregations have gone through this and found tremendous benefit for mission, enthusiasm, finances, leadership development, etc. I'd still have churches "pay forward" for mission, but we wouldn't want to use mission language to fund purely institutional "stuff" with no direct relationship beyond the local ministry. Local church, district, conference, & UM college and seminary would depend upon and trust one another in pursuit of expressing God's kingdom today. The majority of input would be upon effective spiritual leadership for clergy and laity, and there would be a strong predisposition to working everyone while also finding the best place of service. This seems to me to be the priority which has gotten lost in the denominational business and largeness of the enterprise.

Forget most of those amendments because there are some MUCH larger issues which the UMC is being slow to address.

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